Fighting the In-box Barrage

Story By Jennifer McFee
Illustrations By Matt Kehler

In an increasingly digitized world, teaching and technology go hand in hand — but do communication methods such as email help or hinder teachers’ workloads?

For many teachers, such as Robyn Lechow, it’s a little bit of both.

“I find for staff communication, it’s good as long as the other party is checking. For parents, it’s hit or miss,” says Lechow, a Grade 1/2 teacher at Faraday School.

“I also found that where you work makes a difference for whether parents are using email or not. When I worked at two different schools, sometimes I was barraged with 20 emails from parents at one school and nothing from the other.”

On average, Lechow estimates that she spends about 45 minutes to an hour a day sifting through her email.

“Some days, it can be a couple hours and other days it’s nothing,” she says.

“We get a lot of different notifications, and it takes time to actually read emails properly and decide if you need to respond or not.”

In her case, Lechow finds it useful to set a scheduled time to check her email account.

“When I was bouncing between two schools, I would try to make sure I was checking it at the same time every day and I would tell people not to expect a response until the next day,” she says.

“I tried to check it at 8 a.m. before class to see if there was anything I needed to deal with right away. Otherwise, I deal with the rest after school and I do check at home too.”

The amount of emails also fluctuates depending on the time of year, she adds, with more emails tending to accumulate in September and January.

“It’s always changing,” Lechow says. “It’s important to have communication, so I think email is important. But it does definitely add on to the workload if you’re properly reading and comprehending what’s coming through.”

Similarly, Sid Williamson sees both sides of the coin.

“In some ways, I think it’s helped because it’s easier to communicate than trying to do it always face to face. In that regard, I think it’s great. In some schools that I’ve worked at, it was definitely the best tool for communicating with parents to send them daily updates or let them know about things that were happening in classrooms,” says Williamson, an inquiry literacy support teacher at King Edward School.

“I think the dilemma is that it can be overwhelming. Sometimes there can be so much that you can’t even get to half of them. For classroom teachers, it’s probably a mixed blessing. It’s made our job easier in some ways but it’s hard to get away from it, especially if you’ve got families contacting you outside the school day.”

As a tip for other teachers who are struggling to keep up with their electronic correspondence, Williamson offers some sage advice.

“With parents, let them know that you do not look at your work email outside of the work day and that you won’t respond to it until the next work day,” she says.

“In terms of staff, not all emails need to be answered. One of my responsibilities is the library in the building, so I will often send an email to people about the new resources that I have. It’s strictly information, and the teachers know that they don’t have to respond. In that way, it’s made it easier so we don’t have to run around the building trying to have face-to-face conversations all the time.”

For Richard Roberts, a learning technologies consultant for Winnipeg School Division, email has become a ubiquitous tool for communicating.
“If you think about what the world was like 10 years ago in our schools and outside our schools, the way we communicate has completely transformed,” he says.

“Some of those changes in the world are reflected in the classroom. We have a variety of technologies that teachers are using for communication, but email is probably their primary form of communication, even more than the phone. It’s just how we communicate now.”

In Roberts’ role, more than 90 per cent of his communication with teachers is conducted via email. As part of his own workflow, Roberts tends to respond to work-related emails in the evening because his days get so busy.

“There can be an exorbitant volume of email, so it’s just a matter of how you manage it. Some people make it a point to respond to 10 or 15 emails per day or per evening. Other people respond on the go as they come in,” he says.

“In any case, I don’t think we can get away from email. It’s become ingrained in how we communicate — not just in education but in all industry, with all organizations and on a personal level.”

On the flipside, email can also ease the task of communication within the greater school community.

“Most classrooms have some sort of parent email list that they can use to send quick updates about what’s happening at school,” Roberts says. “It saves a lot of things like printed newsletters that classrooms used to send out.”

In addition to email, teachers can rely on an abundance of other technological tools to keep in touch with students, parents and colleagues.

“In a lot of cases, these tools have really enhanced the communication and made a lot of things easier. For example, some teachers communicate with parents via the blog of a classroom website,” Roberts says.

“In our division, many classrooms have digital portfolios for the students to showcase their learning. Parents are automatically connected to those so they can see what’s happening in the classroom in real time. The communication is more rich because the parents get to see a window into the classroom and they can interact digitally on that space as well.”

As an added benefit, teachers who embrace other technological platforms might send and receive fewer emails as a result.

“Classrooms that utilize those types of technologies probably see the actual emails that they send out to parents reduced because they’re communicating differently,” Roberts says.

“When we talk to teachers about using technology for administrative tasks and for learning, it’s got to improve on what they’re already doing so we work with teachers to find the right tool to meet the learning needs of the kids. If that tool can provide a back-end communication channel to parents, it’s even better.”

For Doug Edmond, director of research, planning and technology services for Winnipeg School Division, it’s clear to see that email has come a long way over the past three decades.

“In the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, we were already introducing email at the local school level. At that time, there weren’t centralized services for that type of technology because you couldn’t support it. It was too slow and you didn’t have the fibre connections,” he says.

“Between then and now, there were iterations of the technology that might have been somewhat frustrating, such as the speed of response because sometimes the system might be down. Today, the reliability and quality is amazing compared to even 10 years ago in terms of services. Now we own our own fibre network, as most metro school divisions do, so the infrastructure is all there.”
Similar to any industry, technology has changed the way tasks are tackled in the area of education.

“Would a teacher want to go back to using a hard-copy five-part carbon-paper report card versus what we do today, which is all online? Today, the access to report cards and many other division services are available from wherever the teacher can log on to the internet,” Edmond says.

“However, since technology is 24-7, we encourage teachers to find the right balance for their lives. It’s up to the individual teacher.”
For teachers who struggle to juggle an inundation of email, Richard Roberts offers some words of wisdom.

“My best advice is set rules for yourself. If you find it overwhelming to try to respond to things after school, you can set a rule that you’re not going to check email after work hours,” he says.

“A lot of teachers do that and it works really well for them, but they need to determine that on an individual basis.”
Roberts also recommends reaching out to other teachers who seem to have developed effective communication strategies.

“Don’t be afraid to talk to colleagues and see what they’re doing. Sometimes one person might feel overwhelmed with a type of communication while another person might be handling it really well. It’s not necessarily that they are handling things better; it might be that they’re just doing something different,” he says.

“If you find someone who is using a technology tool that is making communication easier, you might want to have a conversation with them about their implementation and how they use it. If you try it, maybe it will work for you and your students too.”

At the same time, teachers should feel comfortable enough to seek support from technological experts who serve their school division.

— This story was originally printed in the September 2018 issue of The Manitoba Teacher Magazine